A confirmed diagnosis of mesothelioma is not only a devastating shock to a victim and their family. Often there is bewilderment too at how and when exposure to asbestos occurred. Since asbestos was first banned in the UK in the mid 1980s, a worrying trend has emerged of men and women in their late fifties or early sixties who are increasingly being diagnosed with the fatal, incurable cancer or other asbestosis diseases. In a number of cases, victims cannot exactly identify the particular workplace where they may have been exposed to the deadly fibre dust.
In one recent case, the family of a man who only survived seven days after mesothelioma was diagnosed, are desperately seeking answers. The victim was only 58 when he died. His wife and family are calling upon former work colleagues to help with tracing the source of asbestos exposure at former workplaces.
More than half of 8,000 work-related cancer deaths each year are caused by past exposures to asbestos, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 2014. Most historical exposures occurred in traditional heavy industries where asbestos fibres were extensively used as insulation and fireproofing, such as shipbuilding, textile manufacturing, building construction, railway and vehicle assembly.
Different occupations falling victim to asbestos related diseases
The lack of asbestos awareness to the long term health damage was prevalent throughout the traditional workplace. Employers very rarely provided personal protection, such as a breathing mask to prevent inhaling the airborne dust fibres. More recently, the risk of direct occupational exposure involves building contractors, demolition workers and tradesmen, such as plumbers, electricians, and heating/air conditioning installers.
However, it has become increasingly evident that men and women employed in very different occupations, such as teachers, nurses and shop assistants, are also falling victim to asbestos related diseases. Up until the mid 1980s, and even as recently as 2000, the buildings they worked in were constructed using asbestos containing insulation materials.
The work history of the middle aged man who lost his life to mesothelioma just one week after diagnosis was typical of more recent employment patterns.
Significant amount of the insulation materials was hidden in walls
In his 20s, there was short eight week spell of factory work during the summer where the victim described scraping out a “fibrous material he believed was asbestos” from the inside of furnaces. Medical research shows that the risk of developing asbestos-related conditions is more likely if exposure occurred during the early part of life. A genetic susceptibility also increases the risk, even if exposure was only brief.
However, his wife believes that her late husband was probably exposed to asbestos when he was employed as a teacher at two different schools up until the age of 42 in 2000. Between 1945 and 1975, more than four in ten of the 13,000 schools built in England and Wales were constructed with building materials made from several types of asbestos fibres. A significant amount of the insulation materials was hidden in walls, ceiling voids, window sills and ceiling columns.
Today, data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveals that as many as eight in ten school premises around the country still contain asbestos, which is often poorly managed.
Mesothelioma continues to claim lives
One recent survey found that nearly a half of teachers claimed they did know that asbestos was present in their school (National Union of Teachers, 2015). Three years earlier, an All-Party Parliamentary Group Report on Occupational Health and Safety stated that, “Over 140 school teachers have died from mesothelioma in the past ten years”
A generation of men who worked directly with producing or installing asbestos insulation during the peak use years of the 1950s and 60s, is now in decline. However, mesothelioma and asbestos-related conditions continue to claim the lives of those who were employed in the 1970s and 80s, and beyond. Their exposure to asbestos dust in apparently unexplained circumstances may simply be due to hidden insulation installed in the workplace premises.
However, a coroner may record a death as being due to “industrial disease” when the cause cannot be clearly identified as asbestos-related mesothelioma. Incidence of the terminal disease has not significantly reduced, and has actually risen by almost four times in the last thirty years to increasingly claim the lives of men (and women) in their late 50s and early 60s.
The HSE has recently revised up the number of men expected to lose their lives to fatal malignant pleural mesothlioma from an annual peak of just over 2,000 to between 49,000 and 58,000 deaths over the next twenty five years.